As a mission-driven institution, the School of Public Health not only transmits knowledge to the next generation of public health leaders, it equips students with the practical skills needed to solve the most pressing public health challenges. And it’s the application of these skills—creating positive change for one person or one population at a time—that advances the school’s ultimate goal of creating a healthier society.
Now, two SPH faculty members have launched a website that facilitates and showcases student projects that tackle real-world public health problems in collaboration with partnering organizations all over the world.
Jacey Greece, clinical associate professor of community health sciences, and James Wolff, associate professor of global health, developed Collaborate Health as an online resource portal for practice-based teaching (PBT), a pedagogical approach that brings together students, faculty, and organizations to create evidence-based solutions tailored to an organization’s specific public health challenges.
To expand PBT beyond SPH, the website provides a first-of-its-kind framework called PBT STEPS, which instructors at other schools and universities can use as a guide to implement PBT into their own courses.
“Application is the future in all areas of higher education,” says Greece, who has taught the practice-based course Communications Strategies for Public Health (SB806) and Intervention Strategies for Health Promotion. “People acquire knowledge from a variety of sources today, making the classroom a safe place where graduate students can apply workplace competencies and refine their skills through constructive feedback, teamwork, and trial and error.
“Practice-based courses can and should be at the forefront of academia across the board,” she says.
“The organizations we’ve partnered with also benefit greatly from the intellectual energy of students who provide fresh ideas and solutions to the problems these agencies are trying to solve—and all for free,” says Wolff. “It’s a really fantastic way for everyone to learn.”
Greece and Wolff conceptualized Collaborate Health more than four years ago through a pilot project grant awarded by Boston University’s Digital Education Incubator (DEI), which provides funding and development support to innovative projects throughout the University. Now, the PBT website spotlights dozens of innovative products that Master of Public Health and doctoral students have created for public health agencies from the South End to East Africa. From educational materials aimed at reducing rodent activity in Boston, to mobile applications that track and treat rheumatic heart disease patients in Malawi, students in PBT courses have produced practical and sustainable interventions that can be implemented into an agency’s program or business model.
“One of the great strengths of SPH is its global reach of research and teaching,” says Wolff, who teaches PBT courses with a global health angle, including Implementing Health Programs in Developing Countries, and mHealth. “Students really benefit from that exposure and opportunity to interact with a real client in a real context.”
Notably, the partnering organizations often implement the students’ products directly into their programming. Such was the case with the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), which recently collaborated with student groups in Greece’s fall 2019 Communications Strategies course.
On December 12, five student teams in the class presented products they developed over the semester for TDH or for the course’s other client, the Winthrop Health Department in Massachusetts. Both client partnerships were initiated through the Collaborate Health website.
One student group working with TDH created a mobile application and a communications plan to increase pregnant women’s awareness and engagement of the department’s Baby and Me—Tobacco-Free Program. Ami Mitchell, south central regional director for TDH, says that the students provided vital assistance to the department at an opportune time, and that many of the recommendations they developed throughout the class are already being implemented on a local level.
“We can say with certainty that the students provided informed and practical support that we otherwise would not have received,” says Mitchell. Staff members were becoming discouraged by the program’s low participation rates, she says, and the students’ proposals “definitely breathe new life into the program.”
Kayla Hui, a second-year MPH student who was part of this team, says that the infographic, press release, and video she created to promote the app provided communications skills that will be useful in her post-graduate career.
“The best thing about this project was not only being able to work with an actual client, but that the client was very receptive to new ideas, trusted our group, and invested the time and energy to help us improve our deliverables,” says Hui.
Alum Caitlin Baumann (SPH’19), shared similar sentiments. Baumann completed Wolff’s program implementation course last year, working with classmates to develop recommendations for improving supply chain management of youth-oriented health services at the Nama Wellness Community Center in rural Uganda. The team compiled hundreds of pages of budgets, hiring process recommendations, and marketing strategies geared toward the clinic’s target audience.
“As a student, you grapple with putting a lot of time and effort into a project that doesn’t go beyond the professors’ eyes,” says Baumann, who is now a program officer at John Snow, Inc. in Boston. “It was really rewarding to be able to share our work, which served as a resource not only for our client, but potentially for other organizations doing similar work.” She says the classwork is “exactly what I’m doing in my current position at JSI.”
“Research shows that we learn by doing, not by sitting and listening to lectures,” says Chrysanthos Dellarocas, associate provost for digital learning & innovation at BU and Shipley Professor of Management at Questrom, and who oversees the Digital Learning Office that manages the DEI program. Dellarocas says the PBT courses’ use of the experiential learning program Practera is one of several reasons why Collaborate Health is a viable teaching platform throughout academia.
“Our strategy [at DL&I] is to incubate projects that can bloom in one place and become an example for other schools and colleges at BU,” he says. “I’m excited about this work that’s taking place at SPH, and how it can serve as a model for other schools that are increasingly discovering the joys and merits of practice-based teaching.”
Another advantage to PBT partnerships is that students are often able to secure internships or full-time jobs at the organizations with which they collaborate. Collaborate Health will be housed under the SPH Career & Practicum Office, says Lisa Toby, assistant dean of careers and practicum at SPH.
“Collaborate Health’s heavy field-based component is exactly the type of program that differentiates SPH from other schools, as a leader in real-world work experience,” says Toby. “It’s what prospective students want and what employers want.”
This hands-on field experience is especially crucial for students interested in pursuing global health careers, says alum Kallene Ryan (SPH’16), who is currently the Myanmar country director at Tag International Development (TAG). She also completed Wolff’s program implementation course, and has supervised SPH student practicums at the organization in Myanmar.
“A huge part of overseas work is simply understanding the work environment, and the challenges that may occur,” says Ryan. She stressed the importance of being able to adapt to various team dynamics. “The majority of everything in life is about working effectively with people, so whenever students can gain experience with that, especially in a multicultural setting, it can be really helpful.”
Greece and Wolff says that having former students such as Ryan return to SPH to collaborate as community partners is another highlight of teaching PBT courses.
“It’s the biggest compliment to have a graduate return as a client for SB806,” says Greece. “It shows that they appreciated and grew from their own experience, and now want to give back to other students.”